20-year-old Lakshya Sen may have lost the All England Championship final against Axelsen on Sunday, but he definitely announced his arrival on the big stage in style.
It’s 11-18 in the second game and its crystal clear that Lakshya Sen’s opponent has near complete control over the proceedings and the Indian doesn’t really have enough left in the tank after a gruelling semi-final to challenge the World No. 1 and Tokyo Olympic Champion.
No one would have been too critical of Sen giving up at this stage as he had probably exceeded all expectations by becoming only the fifth Indian shuttler to reach the All England final and considering that no other men’s singles player from the country could go this far in last 21 years was an achievement in itself.
But Sen wasn’t willing to give up. He chased every shuttle, even dived to make a save and then bagged a point that didn’t really matter in the final analysis as he lost the summit clash in two straight games 21-10, 21-15 in a match that lasted 53 minutes.
A few headlines after the loss may tell you that Sen “settled for silver” against currently the best player by far on the international circuit. But what they may not tell you is how far the 20-year-old from the hilly terrain of Almora in Uttarakhand has come in his badminton career.
There was no doubt that the nine-year-old boy who forced his way into the Prakash Padukone Academy by insisting on participating in the trials to join his brother had the potential to be among the world’s best.
But having talent is one thing and building on it to try and become one of the best in the world is completely another.
As a teenager making in-roads on the junior international circuit, Sen was known for his fast-paced game, the booming smashes and the hunger to win. He would decimate opponents when on song and at 15 even accounted for the likes of HS Prannoy to become the youngster men’s singles player to reach the senior national final in Patna in February 2017.
It was in the final that the youngster got his first lesson in patience from the defensive-minded Sourabh Verma, who toyed with him in the Bihar capital and did the same two years later in Guwahati at the same stage.
Between these two defeats, Sen had won the 2018 Asian Junior crown and also bagged the silver medal at the 2018 Youth Olympics but making the transition from junior to senior circuit was going to be baptism by fire.
That journey ultimately started when he along with other academy mates went for a training camp under Danish legend Morten Frost in 2019. The former world No. 1 not just explained him the nuances of the game but also gave him a dressing down when he failed to show the patience required to pull out tough matches. He also got to play a few good matches in the Danish League and that experience saw him clinch five consecutive titles on the international circuit, including two Super 100 crowns.
He built on that with a win over reigning Asian Games gold medallist Jonatan Christie of Indonesia at the Badminton Asia Team Championships semi-final and then gave Axelsen something to ponder about at the 2020 All England pre-quarterfinals.
One would have thought that Sen would be pushing for a Tokyo Olympic berth but coach U Vimal Kumar wanted him to take it one tournament at a time and even those plans came to nothing once the Covid pandemic engulfed the world.
Sen worked on his strength and fitness during the long break but if he felt he could hit the ground running immediately, he got a rude shock when he lost the very first match at the selection trials for the Indian Thomas/Uber Cup and Sudirman Cup team.
The loss turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Sen, who got invited to train with Axelsen at his Dubai base along with some other young players. The two-week training stint taught the 20-year-old a lot about planning his own sessions, handing situations on his own and suddenly made him more matured in the way he approached his game.
His defence had got a long stronger and he now had the ability to play the waiting game till he could flip the switch and go into an attack mode when the opportunity presented itself. His confidence was sky high and though he struggled against former world champion Kento Momota and Axelsen in Indonesia.
But by the time he arrived in Huelva, Spain, for the 2021 World Championships he got a lucky break with withdrawals of many players due to another Covid wave and he made the most of it by registering fighting wins over Kenta Nishimoto and then Zhao Junpeng to assure himself a medal in his first worlds.
Sen hasn’t looked back since then. He clinched his first Super 500 crown in New Delhi by beating world champion Loh Kean Yew of Singapore in the final.
A week ago, in Germany, Sen came back from the brink to upset Axelsen in the semi-finals and showed that he was one of India’s best to end the 21-year-old wait for another All England crown.
At Arena Birmingham, Sen dominated the likes of Verma, Anders Antonsen of Denmark and then once again showed his resilience to upset defending champion Lee Zii Jia in three games.
Against the defending champions, Sen dominated the net exchanges when his opponent was in the ascendency, kept his nerves under pressure and unleashed those deadly cross-court smashes to force the Malaysian to surrender.
But the hour and 16-minute effort against Lee probably drained Sen out so much that he didn’t have enough in the tank for yet another superhuman effort against Axelsen on Sunday and emulate his mentor Padukone or chief coach Gopichand by clinching the All England crown.
Thankfully, unlike the two champions, who made it on the top of the All England podium in their late 20s, Sen is just about starting his journey on the World Tour and unless he never again gets another stab at the crown, this loss could be just another step on the ladder of success.